Data firm left detailed profiles of 48 million people on a publicly accessible website

In the wake of Facebook's Cambridge Analytica scandal, another data firm was discovered to have amassed similar user profiles of millions of people.


A report published Wednesday reveals how a data firm built psychographic profiles on 48 million people, using data from Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Zillow, and others—and then left that trove of data unprotected on a cloud storage repository.

The data was compiled by LocalBlox, a firm that “automatically crawls, discovers, extracts, indexes, maps and augments data in a variety of formats from the web and from exchange networks” to build consumer profiles that it sells to companies.  

In February, Chris Vickery, an ethical data breach hunter and director of cyber risk research at the security firm UpGuard, was able to access millions of these profiles on an unlisted and unprotected Amazon Web Services S3 bucket. The bucket contained a 151.3-gigabyte file that, when decompressed, amounted to a 1.2 terabyte that contained the user profiles. It was aptly named “final_people_data_2017_5_26_48m.json.”

“In the wake of the Facebook/Cambridge Analytica debacle, the importance of massive sets of psychographic data is becoming more and more apparent,” UpGuard’s report reads. “The exposed LocalBlox dataset combines standard personal information like name and address, with data about the person’s internet usage, such as their LinkedIn histories and Twitter feeds. This combination begins to build a three-dimensional picture of every individual affected—who they are, what they talk about, what they like, even what they do for a living—in essence, a blueprint from which to create targeted persuasive content, like advertising or political campaigning.”

The consumer profiles amassed by LocalBlox vary in level of detail. Much of the information can be harvested from public sources—the email address listed on your Facebook profile, or the city of residence shown on your Twitter page. Some of the information is believed to have been collected from non-public sources, such as purchased marketing data.

In a ZDNet article published Wednesday, LocalBlox’s chief technology officer Ashfaq Rahman said most of the data discovered by Vickery was fabricated for internal tests, and that Vickery had “hacked in” to the publicly accessible repository. But Vickery had informed LocalBlox that he accessed the repository after discovering the vulnerability in February, and it was reportedly secured soon after.

“Rahman would not say why he restricted the bucket’s permissions hours later,” reads the ZDNet article.

According to Rahman, “no other individual is believed to have accessed this file from the S3 bucket.”

LocalBlox didn’t break any laws in its harvesting of consumer data, though it’s not clear whether it violated the terms of websites like LinkedIn, Facebook, and Zillow, all of which explicitly prohibit data scraping.

In a 2013 article, LocalBlox’s president Sabira Arefin said it’s “up to the individual sites and system to determine the terms and conditions and then enforce any security mechanism in place if they want to prevent scraping.”

Vickery said that companies like LocalBlox should be more responsible in the way they handle and stores people’s data.

“Concentrating millions of people's details can become by its very nature a weaponized thing, and something that can lead to a lot of harm,” Vickery said.

UpGuard’s report concludes:

“The profitability gained by data must come with the responsibility of protecting its integrity and privacy. Cloud storage itself provides functionality and speed at a reasonable cost, but cloud assets require careful configuration—the thin line between private and public can be erased with the flip of a single switch. The lack of controls around common IT processes are what allow critical errors like this to slip into production, eroding the privacy of millions of people.”

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Homo sapiens have been on earth for 200,000 years — give or take a few ten-thousand-year stretches. Much of that time is shrouded in the fog of prehistory. What we do know has been pieced together by deciphering the fossil record through the principles of evolutionary theory. Yet new discoveries contain the potential to refashion that knowledge and lead scientists to new, previously unconsidered conclusions.

A set of 8-million-year-old teeth may have done just that. Researchers recently inspected the upper and lower jaw of an ancient European ape. Their conclusions suggest that humanity's forebearers may have arisen in Europe before migrating to Africa, potentially upending a scientific consensus that has stood since Darwin's day.

Rethinking humanity's origin story

The frontispiece of Thomas Huxley's Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature (1863) sketched by natural history artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

As reported in New Scientist, the 8- to 9-million-year-old hominin jaw bones were found at Nikiti, northern Greece, in the '90s. Scientists originally pegged the chompers as belonging to a member of Ouranopithecus, an genus of extinct Eurasian ape.

David Begun, an anthropologist at the University of Toronto, and his team recently reexamined the jaw bones. They argue that the original identification was incorrect. Based on the fossil's hominin-like canines and premolar roots, they identify that the ape belongs to a previously unknown proto-hominin.

The researchers hypothesize that these proto-hominins were the evolutionary ancestors of another European great ape Graecopithecus, which the same team tentatively identified as an early hominin in 2017. Graecopithecus lived in south-east Europe 7.2 million years ago. If the premise is correct, these hominins would have migrated to Africa 7 million years ago, after undergoing much of their evolutionary development in Europe.

Begun points out that south-east Europe was once occupied by the ancestors of animals like the giraffe and rhino, too. "It's widely agreed that this was the found fauna of most of what we see in Africa today," he told New Scientists. "If the antelopes and giraffes could get into Africa 7 million years ago, why not the apes?"

He recently outlined this idea at a conference of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists.

It's worth noting that Begun has made similar hypotheses before. Writing for the Journal of Human Evolution in 2002, Begun and Elmar Heizmann of the Natural history Museum of Stuttgart discussed a great ape fossil found in Germany that they argued could be the ancestor (broadly speaking) of all living great apes and humans.

"Found in Germany 20 years ago, this specimen is about 16.5 million years old, some 1.5 million years older than similar species from East Africa," Begun said in a statement then. "It suggests that the great ape and human lineage first appeared in Eurasia and not Africa."

Migrating out of Africa

In the Descent of Man, Charles Darwin proposed that hominins descended out of Africa. Considering the relatively few fossils available at the time, it is a testament to Darwin's astuteness that his hypothesis remains the leading theory.

Since Darwin's time, we have unearthed many more fossils and discovered new evidence in genetics. As such, our African-origin story has undergone many updates and revisions since 1871. Today, it has splintered into two theories: the "out of Africa" theory and the "multi-regional" theory.

The out of Africa theory suggests that the cradle of all humanity was Africa. Homo sapiens evolved exclusively and recently on that continent. At some point in prehistory, our ancestors migrated from Africa to Eurasia and replaced other subspecies of the genus Homo, such as Neanderthals. This is the dominant theory among scientists, and current evidence seems to support it best — though, say that in some circles and be prepared for a late-night debate that goes well past last call.

The multi-regional theory suggests that humans evolved in parallel across various regions. According to this model, the hominins Homo erectus left Africa to settle across Eurasia and (maybe) Australia. These disparate populations eventually evolved into modern humans thanks to a helping dollop of gene flow.

Of course, there are the broad strokes of very nuanced models, and we're leaving a lot of discussion out. There is, for example, a debate as to whether African Homo erectus fossils should be considered alongside Asian ones or should be labeled as a different subspecies, Homo ergaster.

Proponents of the out-of-Africa model aren't sure whether non-African humans descended from a single migration out of Africa or at least two major waves of migration followed by a lot of interbreeding.

Did we head east or south of Eden?

Not all anthropologists agree with Begun and his team's conclusions. As noted by New Scientist, it is possible that the Nikiti ape is not related to hominins at all. It may have evolved similar features independently, developing teeth to eat similar foods or chew in a similar manner as early hominins.

Ultimately, Nikiti ape alone doesn't offer enough evidence to upend the out of Africa model, which is supported by a more robust fossil record and DNA evidence. But additional evidence may be uncovered to lend further credence to Begun's hypothesis or lead us to yet unconsidered ideas about humanity's evolution.